MY STORY The world from Grand Junction

A West London church has turned arts venue, morphing from St Mary Magdalene’s Church to Grand Junction under the guidance of its creative director, Lucy Foster. Opening on July 6 Olive Jar, part of the Shubbak Festival, explores the heritage of Londoners from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Morocco, a community local to Grand Junction.

What is Grand Junction and for how long has it occupied the church?

Grand Junction at St Mary Magdalene’s is the name that was given to the venue that runs out of the church and the new building attached. Local charity Paddington Development Trust (PDT) have a lease on the building Monday to Saturday to run it as a community and arts space. We opened following two years of restoration and construction in 2019.

We have a vibrant programme of classes and courses for adults and children, plus a growing music and arts programme for London-wide audiences. We are very much focused on serving our local community, while also establishing ourselves as one of London’s most beautiful, unusual, and welcoming arts venues.

What did you do before founding Grand Junction?

I come from a theatre background originally, working as a director and drama facilitator. I created touring shows, worked regularly with the theatre company Improbable, and worked with young people in schools and youth theatres. From there I worked as Grand Junction’s programme manager, engaging local communities in the years before we opened. In 2019 I became the creative and community director, overseeing the opening and launch of our programme.

Can you describe the church, and is it now deconsecrated?

It is a Grade 1 listed, Neo-Gothic building, finished in 1878, and designed by GE Street, who also designed the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. Street brought in many of the finest craftspeople of the time to work on it, such as Daniel Bell who painted the extraordinary panelled ceiling, and Henry Holiday is the artist behind the stained glass windows. It is an Anglo-Catholic church and, as such, the interior is highly decorated with statues of saints and complex mosaic tiling. It is a rich feast for the eyes for those who attend an event inside it.

The church is not deconsecrated, but gives its space over to other activities during the week, returning to running church services on Sundays.  It is a rare example of a consecrated and active church leasing its space to another organisation to run it as a venue, while retaining use on Sundays and other holy days.

Is the activity in the church itself or an annexe/church hall?

The majority of our concerts and talks take place in the main church space, the nave. The Olive Jar production will be staged there. We don’t only do shows in the church, however. We run yoga classes, a choir, and community festivals all from the nave. Below is a crypt space, called The Undercroft, which provides a more intimate setting for smaller events. The Undercroft also houses the St Sepulchre Chapel. Built 20 years after the main church as a memorial to its founder, it is an architectural gem designed by Ninian Comper in the style of a 15th century chantry chapel. Its beautiful blue vaulted ceiling has recently been restored through funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The new building, designed by Dow Jones Architects, is small yet essential. It provides a lift with access to all levels, a café opening onto the green space alongside the canal, and a bright learning studio, where most of the classes for children and adults take place.

What sort of events have taken place there under the Grand Junction label?

Opening in autumn 2019, we were only just getting going when the pandemic hit and shut our building for the best part of 18 months. Funding from the DCMS Culture Recovery Fund allowed us to stage an online festival in March 2021, marking our full launch as a new cultural space in London. The season, Comfort and Courage, saw 20 shows in 25 days, including established names such as Emmy the Great, Talvin Singh, and SEED Collective. This season also saw us begin to work with partners such as Arts Canteen, MARSM, and Shubbak, to programme Arab artists, connecting with the large Arabic-speaking communities close by.

Since things opened up in 2021 we have steadily been building our reputation as a unique place to listen to music, attend a talk or see a family show. Promoters such as SJM, Upset the Rhythm, and Bird on The Wire have all brought shows to the venue, as well as regular visits from folk innovators The Nest Collective. Further collaborations have seen diverse musical influences establish themselves, with shows from Moroccan singer Oum, award-winning Iranian band Niyaz, and the now legendary comedy night Arabs Are Not Funny. Most recently, the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival launched at Grand Junction. With upcoming visits from Bach Choir and Icelandic composer Eydis Evensen the eclectic mix of brilliant music to be found at Grand Junction will expand further.

For local families, we have also become established as a place to find high-quality children’s theatre on their doorsteps, with recent visits from Roustabout Theatre, Groove Baby, and Sanskruti Dance.

What is different about this production? 

Olive Jar emerges from eight months of workshops with a group of local people from Middle Eastern and North African heritage. They have worked weekly with director Elias Matar to explore stories of leaving home, journeys to new places, and making lives in West London. They have now been joined by a professional creative team to stage these stories, which capture the extraordinary stories that ordinary people have to tell. Ruba Shamshoum, who first performed a solo show at Grand Junction as part of our online season in 2021, returns to compose an original score for the show. Ruba’s soulful fusion of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds has a vulnerability and dreaminess which connects to and heightens the power of the performers’ stories. The voices heard in this show will be deeply authentic, surrounded by production values which support and enhance the storytelling.

We want London-wide audiences to attend, including theatre-lovers curious about the results of this process. But we also want local people who share a Middle Eastern and North African heritage to come along, including those who have not previously attended a theatre show. We hope the audience will reflect the diversity that surrounds Grand Junction, and that the show also represents the varied and powerful experiences of London’s migrant communities.

How does such work benefit the church, how does the congregation respond, and is there a noticeable change in the demography of the audience/congregation as a result of the last eight years?

Largely due to the demographics of the local area, the church continues to have a relatively small congregation. Paddington Development Trust taking the lease, which includes responsibility for maintaining the building, ensures that the Grade 1 listed building is cared for and invested in. This benefits the church in that they have a space to worship in that it no longer has buckets for the leaks and there is heating in winter.

The relationship between PDT and the church is incredibly positive. PDT is a local non-religious charity engaged in community-building activities. The church embraces the community-focused work we do and welcomes that this amazing space has been put back at the centre of the community for everyone’s benefit. We don’t take this for granted. Some congregations might not be so supportive of sharing their space in this way, but St Mary Magdalene’s is. We really value that.

Is this a quintessential example of community arts in action, and do many churches achieve similar cross-overs – how can they be persuaded to?

Yes, I would say it is. In creating Olive Jar, our motivation is to tell the stories of the growing Arab communities close by, to share them with people from similar backgrounds as well as those who are not. To do that in a way that is powerful and engaging we wanted to work with a director and creative team who are professional and can bring their skills to translating those stories into captivating theatre. With Olive Jar we are working at a boundary between community theatre and professional theatre, and perhaps we will raise questions about whether this division should be drawn so starkly - perhaps there should be just theatre that engages, moves, and entertains, and that which does not.

In terms of our participatory projects and classes, we believe that the arts should be accessible for everyone to explore their creativity. There is huge evidence of the wellbeing benefits of engaging with making art, which feels important in an area with a high prevalence of health, and mental health, challenges. While we are predominantly arts focused, we are also interested in meeting people at a point of need. We offer a language café for informal English practice, because if you can’t speak English yet you won’t be able to benefit from other provision and can feel isolated from your community. People often engage with us first through the language café and then move on to take part in an arts activity. In that sense we are focused first on our community and then offering an invitation to be creative.

There are growing numbers of churches that are engaging more widely with their communities, whether they are Christian or not. Church buildings have been recognised as buildings with huge benefits for everyone, as places to sing, for children to play, to drink tea together, or listen to music.

What comes next for Grand Junction, and will it be at St Mary Magdalene’s?

We will keep doing what we are doing, growing our programmes and the numbers who engage with them.

We have one more year to run of our National Lottery Heritage Fund Our Shared Heritage project, which Olive Jar is part of. In year two we will gather more stories from people from Middle Eastern and North African heritage, but this time we will work towards an exhibition which will run for a month next summer.

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